The Streisand effect describes a situation in which an attempt to suppress information actually helps to promote it instead. The effect is named after Barbra Streisand, for her unsuccessful attempt to sue a photographer for taking an aerial photo of her home in Malibu. Although the effect can originate offline, the notoriety usually spreads over the Internet.
The Streisand effect serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who finds themselves faced with negative online information. High-profile examples of Streisand effect blunders appear in the media regularly—don’t let your story be the next one. If you are dealing with unwanted online content, it’s important to address it the right way.
Origins of the term
Mike Masnick, founder of TechDirt, first came up with the term “Streisand effect” in 2005. He was writing about a site called urinal.net that had received a takedown request from a resort whose urinals were featured on the site. Masnick stated:
How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don’t like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people? Let’s call it the Streisand Effect.
Masnick was referring to Streisand’s unsuccessful lawsuit against photographer Kenneth Adelman. Working for the California Coastal Records Project, Adelman had been tasked with recording coastline erosion via aerial photography.
Streisand claimed that the photo of her home, posted on Pictopia.com, was an invasion of her privacy, and she filed a lawsuit to have it removed. Prior to filing the lawsuit, the photo itself had only been downloaded six times. However, the publicity surrounding the case led to nearly half a million views of the photo. To make matters worse, Streisand also lost the lawsuit. The photo is now featured on the Wikipedia page for the Streisand effect—it’s also the cover photo for this blog post.
Why the Streisand effect happens
Not every attempt at suppressing information leads to the Streisand effect. We typically only see the effect in two situations:
- When suppression seems unfair
- When the information is scandalous or entertaining
In the Streisand example, the idea that a rich celebrity can sue a photographer for posting an aerial photo of her home feels fundamentally unfair to many people. Once they learned of the lawsuit, they sought out the photo to see for themselves.
In the resort urinal situation, the Streisand effect was more about entertainment value. First of all, it seems ridiculous to create a website dedicated to photos of urinals. Secondly, the idea that a resort would care enough about the site to issue a takedown notice is comical. When presented with that story, lots of people went looking for the photo out of sheer curiosity.
Do’s and don’ts: two contrasting examples
If you do get hit by the Streisand effect, there are better and worse ways to react. The following two examples illustrate the point.
In 2008, Ford sued a customer forum for trademark infringement. The move angered one of the carmaker’s primary customer segments. In a rapid response, an executive in Ford’s social media department took to Twitter and orchestrated a real-time dialogue to quiet the growing furor, which died down rapidly.
In May 2011, Spin Magazine initiated legal proceedings against a Twitter user who had claimed the handle @spin. They claimed the user was “cybersquatting” on their magazine name and demanded that he stop using the account. The move touched off a Twitter revolt, especially since the owner of the handle claimed to have never heard about Spin Magazine and was clearly using the account for personal purposes. As a result, Spin Magazine suffered long-lasting negative effects.
What did Ford know about countering the Streisand effect that Spin failed to understand?
- Approach the offending purveyor of information as politely and openly as possible.
- Never underestimate America’s desire to root for the underdog. The cases mentioned, including the original event involving Streisand, featured a David-and-Goliath narrative. If people see you as the giant putting down the little guy, you can almost guarantee a viral nightmare.
- Like the Peter Principle, the Streisand effect tends to create inertia. Once entrenched online, viral negative content is likely to remain part of the Internet’s landscape.
The dark side of the Streisand effect
Of course, not every case of the Streisand effect involves a company doing something wrong. In many cases, individuals get caught in the crosshairs of a juicy story that generates intense online interest.
Consider the numerous incidents of celebrities being hacked and having their personal information or private photos released. The hacks themselves are illegal and a violation of the individual’s privacy. It is completely reasonable that these celebrities would seek to remove the materials from the Internet. However, news of the removal efforts often makes the problem worse.
Another common scenario we see among ReputationDefender clients is reporting on a wrongful arrest—but no reporting on the exoneration. Not everyone who has been arrested by police has committed a crime. Unfortunately, arrests make for much more interesting news than releases. As a result, many innocent individuals find themselves with search results describing their arrests, but nothing describing the charges being dropped. When these clients try to get news item removed, the added attention for the article often causes it to rise.
How to prevent the Streisand effect from harming your reputation
The best strategy to counter the Streisand effect is to avoid aggressive tactics when faced with negative information. If there’s a chance that your actions could come off as “David and Goliath,” then you should probably choose another approach.
Next, focus on indirect means of suppression. Unless the host of the content is likely to be sympathetic to your cause, you’re better off avoiding all interaction. Don’t visit the link, don’t tell people about the horrible thing that happened to you, and certainly don’t post anything online about the issue.
A more effective approach is to bury the item in more positive materials. There are many ways to do this, depending on the type of threat you’re dealing with. Our flagship ReputationDefender product was designed to indirectly suppress negative blogs, news articles, or similar materials showing up in search results. If you’re dealing with personal information disclosures or issues connected to online reviews, we have other approaches that may be more effective, depending on the specifics of your situation. If you’d like more information on what you can do on your own or how we can help, feel free to contact us.